Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In Memoriam: Brian Barry

Brian Leiter has the news. Harry Brighouse follows up.

Update: My only sustained public engagement with him as a thinker was not a particularly sympathetic one. But I was tremendously impressed with both Sociologists, Economists and Democracy and Political Argument as a grad student; he was a lifelong advocate of keeping normative political work engaged with social science and social theory; and his long work at the journal Ethics did a tremendous amount for political and moral philosophy and theory. By my reckoning he didn't just raise the standards of the journal; he raised the standards of the field.

On a more personal level: I didn't know Barry well-- but I got to know him toward the end of my time as a graduate student, when I was commuting from New York to Princeton and he was teaching at Columbia. He and his wife Anni were personally incredibly warm and welcoming to me; and intellectually he treated me as someone worth talking and arguing with about our areas of shared interest. I shared a drink with him on several occasions, and always enjoyed the experience and the conversation.

I had cause to complain about the way in which he read the work of some other people, but with regard to my own work, he had read it before we ever met, talked about it (in person and in print) fairly and accurately, and was supportive and encouraging about it. I think he was the first person who included my work on a syllabus, and I was still a grad student at the time; it's hard to overstate how flattered I was by this. And he was generous with time and advice, though he had no advisorly obligations to me.

Because he genuinely retired, I almost never saw him after the publication of my review linked to above; but he was in touch enough to make clear that he took it in good spirit, and indeed he asked whether I'd follow up with a review of Why Social Justice Matters. There's a traditional joke in political theory about the mismatch between official intellectual positions and personal style-- the civic republican who's a terrible departmental citizen, the deliberativist who will never let anyone else talk and the deliberativist who hates to talk, that kind of thing. Brian Barry often comes up as a central example-- the pugilist, brawler, or (depending on your perspective) dirty fighter on the printed page who was exceptionally warm, generous, and open in person. He knew this himself, and it seemed to amuse him. I had my quarrels with the printed pugilist-- but remember and appreciate that warm and generous man.

further update: Valuable comments continue to be posted at the Crooked Timber thread from Barry's colleagues and friends. Wyn Grant gets at what I was trying to express here: "He could certainly be pugancious and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, but he was very supportive to younger scholars." Jo Wolff recounts some more examples of the pugnaciousness-- and suggests that it represents a sense on Barry'spart that "political theory can be much easier than most people make it, provided that one keeps things clear, puts down one’s ideological axe, and resists the temptation to seek novelty or paradox for its own sake.” And Paul Kelleyalso emphasizes Barry'sinterest in keeping political philosophy intellectually engaged with the social sciences, in the service of doing normative work aimed at the world.

1 comment:

djw said...

FWIW, I (first) used "Classifying Cultural Rights" in a course on multiculturalism and globalization in 2003. That's a nice remembrance. I'm trying to remember what he said about your work in Culture and Equality; I remember finding his readings of some people (Kukathas; Parekh) unfortunately uncharitable, but I can't remember his engagement with your work.

I suspect you may not be a fan of his famous review of Nozick; I appreciated it in large part because I agree with it, but I also think it can be read as calling for better libertarian-leaning political theory, which we've fortunately had since Nozick. I doubt there's a causal chain between his review and the direction of libertarian theory, but it was clear that libertarians really could do better than ASU, and I'm glad someone did (and really, does anyone really think that if Nozick had written his book while teaching in Duluth and Bowling Green, and Lomasky his in Cambridge, their relative reputations would be anything like what they are now?